For the last three years, the Fort Frances Lakers have entered training camp as the hunted.
Now they are the hunter gunning for those who would aim to block their return to the head of the SIJHL class.
The Lakers went from three-time defending league champs to fifth-place finishers last season with a 24-25-3-4 record before being second-round victims of the eventual champion Dryden GM Ice Dogs in the playoffs.
“We will have one goal and that is to get back to the top of the league,” head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan vowed on the eve of the Lakers’ three-day training camp that starts tomorrow.
“It will not be easy so the competitiveness and hunger needs to be at a high level,” he said.
“Many of the players have told me they are excited to get going and looking forward to the year.”
Strachan is only bringing about 35 players to camp, which will be made up of 19 forwards, 10 defencemen, four goalies, and a smattering of Midget ‘AAA’ players who could wind up as affiliates of the team and possibly called up later in the season.
“I wanted a small camp to instill our identity as a team, show confidence in our players, and make them accountable right from the beginning and earn their position,” he explained.
And Strachan wasn’t mincing words about what he expects from every player who steps on the ice come tomorrow.
“We need to get to work from Day 1,” he stressed.
“The process of getting to know one another will take care of itself in the next few weeks leading up to the regular season,” added Strachan.
“But if a player is not in shape or we don’t feel, as a staff, will be effective to what we want to accomplish, then they won’t be here.
“It’s a simple message,” he said. “We are moving forward. The past is simply that, the past, and we are not dwelling on it as a staff.
“We know what we need to do to move on, and we hope the players buy into that process and go to work.”
Strachan said there are key holes to fill at all positions going into camp, but the blueline will earn the lion’s share of his focus.
“We have added some guys that will [strengthen the defence corps] and we return [Connor] Keith and [Mark] Richter,” he noted.
“But we lost some key players back there with [Matt] Bruinsma not returning and going to school,” he conceded.
“That hurts us having to now find someone to replace him this late.”
Despite last season’s setback, Strachan wasn’t planning any radical change to how he will run this year’s camp.
“I don’t believe our evaluation [style] will change, but we want character players that are going to play for one another and understand what it is going to take to reach our goals,” he reiterated.
“We want to build our team around a fast, aggressive style of play, and that is where the hunger and compete will come into play,” he reasoned.
“We will alter some on-ice systems but through camp, we will mainly play games to see who rises to the top.”
Training camp begins tomorrow at the Memorial Sports Centre with registration and a team meeting at 10 a.m.
That will be followed by off-ice testing at 11 a.m., then the first intrasquad scrimmage at 9:30 p.m. in the Ice For Kids Arena.
The second scrimmage goes Friday at 11 a.m., with the third one at 7 p.m.
Then on Saturday, a fourth scrimmage is set for 10 a.m., followed by the fifth and final one at 5:30 p.m.
The camp wraps up with individual player meetings with the coaching staff at 7:15 p.m.